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Gaffney’s World: Not Always Fair

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“In another world,” Zen country poet Jimmie Dale Gilmore once sang, “they’re laughin’ and they’re singin’ "--in contrast to the pain and suffering so prominent in ours.

And in another world, Chris Gaffney and his cohorts are superstars, universally adored, respected and richly remunerated for their gloriously border-less, exhilarating music-making.

It sure ain’t this world, though, where Gaffney & Co. continue to play for chump change in such local watering holes as the Swallow’s Inn in San Juan Capistrano, where the live portion of this two-CD set was recorded last spring, as well as the Old Towne Brewing Co. in Orange and wherever else they can plug in for an evening.

But what a trip one of those evenings can be--and the live set caught here courses through classic honky-tonk and Tex-Mex to rollicking New Orleans-soaked R&B; and straight-out rock.

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The 15 songs on the live disc will be largely familiar to the Gaffney faithful. With the exception of the previously unrecorded Gaffney-Wyman Reese ballad “Turn to Grey,” the seven originals are drawn from the three albums and one EP he’s recorded since 1986. The covers--from Gilmore’s elegant “Dallas” to Bill Anderson’s stone country waltz “The Lord Knows I’m Drinkin’ "--have been staples of the Cold Hard Facts’ set list for years.

The list here begins appropriately enough with the ode he and Dave Alvin wrote to the working musician’s life, “Six Nights a Week.” The vivid portraits of honky-tonk denizens would make it a genre-transcending number alone, but it takes another step above and beyond as the narrator recognizes himself as one of their lonely number:

I’ve been singing in this bar since God knows when

Six nights a week

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I rest on Sunday then I’m back again

Six nights a week

I stare at the same old faces

And I gaze out at the empty seats

And think of when you said goodbye

Six nights a week

Originally this was to be a reissue of his excellent but long out-of-print 1986 EP “Road to Indio” fleshed out with a small handful of live tracks. But somewhere along the way Gaffney decided to take the opportunity to show off the band’s prowess in a live setting.

The band members’ musical empathy can be quite stunning, as is their command of all strains of roots country and rock. On “Frank’s Tavern,” a Tex-Mex polka, Gaffney’s whiskey-stained vocals and bouncing accordion, Danny Ott’s twangy lead guitar, Doug Livingston’s moaning pedal steel and Wyman Reese’s roller-rink organ swirl up and over the crisp foundation from bassist Mike Barry and drummer Tucker Fleming toward a magnificent ensemble climax on the final chorus.

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Ott’s playing is always strikingly melodic, as economical or wildly expansive as the moment dictates--something that doesn’t usually get a chance to come out in the band’s studio sessions.

Gaffney’s songwriting expertise has been firmly established in his previous albums. He writes about people, not stereotypes, everyday folk with names like Charlie and Joe and Frank and Mrs. Johnson whose life plans often go south despite their better intentions or their own understanding. Heartache isn’t something that comes and goes, but an ever-present fact of life.

In another world, Gaffney would be at the top of the heap for music this immediate, this real. And in another world, Gaffney would have had an anything-goes budget to more fully capture the group’s live dynamics than they’ve been able to do here.

But in another world, we also might not have the luxury of popping in to hear a band this good on any given weekend.

(Available from Tres Pescaderos, P.O. Box 4, Anaheim, CA 92815-0004 or thewett@primenet.com.)

* Chris Gaffney & the Cold Hard Facts play Feb. 5 at the Culver Saloon, 11513 Washington Blvd. Culver City. 9:30 p.m. (310) 391-1519.

Albums are rated on a scale of onestar (poor) to four stars (excellent), with three stars denoting a solid recommendation.

Randy Lewis may be reached by e-mail at Randy.Lewis@latimes.com.

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